2017-08-26 / News

Candlelight Tours Part of a Successful Summer at State Park

By Cathryn Lien

About 120 people got a feel for Mackinac Island life after dark in the 1800s on two candlelight tours of downtown restored historic buildings this summer, continuing a tradition begun 25 years ago by Mackinac State Historic Parks and assuring it will continue next summer.

Curator of Education Katie Mallory said the downtown museum sites were used this summer because it’s the bicentennial of the City of Mackinac Island. City officials celebrated their municipality’s 200 years of history in ceremonies held June 7, matching the calendar day in 1817 when the first official meeting of the Borough of Michilimackinac was called to order.

Locations for the candlelight tours alternate from annually between historic downtown sites, Fort Mackinac, and the Island cemeteries. Evening tours of Fort Mackinac coincide with significant dates and years in its history. From 2012 through 2015, for example, tours were held at Fort Mackinac to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812.

This year’s downtown tour took visitors through Biddle House, McGulpin House, the American Fur Trade Retail Store, Stuart House, and the Mackinac Art Museum, which was once the Indian Dormitory and Island school. These tours were included in the price of admissions to Fort Mackinac, purchased on the tour days.

About 60 people showed up for each tour, which Ms. Mallory considers successful turnouts. She said the visitors were separated into smaller tour groups to make the experience more intimate. A tour leader, who carried a candlelit lantern to light the way, narrated as participants strolled through the history-laden visitor sites. Costumed Fort Mackinac interpreters greeted them in each building.

“The interpreters usually relate history by speaking in third person,” Ms. Mallory said. “For the candlelight tour, the interpreters were more like actors. They spoke in first person and portrayed historical figures.”

She said the Mackinac State Historic Parks interpreters are well-versed in the history of the buildings and could create their own scripts based on the historic figures and themes they wanted to portray.

At the former Indian Dormitory, Ms. Mallory said, two interpreters played women of Odawa-French descent. They chatted over tea and talked about coming to Mackinac Island to pick up annuity checks from the government, a common occurrence on the Island in the 1830s. The women discussed the Treaty of Washington and issues over land ownership.

At McGulpin House, tourists saw the daily routine of a typical 19th century family. The McGulpins were bakers who provided bread for the American Fur Company across the street.

When the tour arrived at the American Fur Company retail store, participants learned about its daily operations, as well as the fur company’s economic impact on the Island. Interpreters also recounted the famous, real story of Dr. William Beaumont’s observations about human digestion between 1922 and 1833 through the gunshot wound suffered by voyageur Alexis St. Martin.

Mr. St. Martin was accidently shot with a musket at close range in the fur trading post and was expected to die. Improbably, he survived and the hole in his side healed to form a fistula aperture into his stomach, through which Dr. Beaumont, a US Army surgeon, could observe and experiment with digestion.

At Biddle House, young Sophia Biddle and her friend, Elizabeth, greeted candlelight tour visitors. Sophia Biddle was educated in the Detroit area and lived on Mackinac Island with her family during the summer months. She and Elizabeth, portrayed by interpreters, showed visitors popular dance steps of the 19th century.

Visitors were also treated to a taste from the past. At the end of the tour, historic refreshments were served – including a drink made of preserved fruit, vinegar, ginger, and molasses — commonly used to cure stomach aches.

Historic parks officials haven’t yet decided where the candlelight tours in the 2018 summer season will be conducted. Ms. Mallory said in 2019, they plan a special evening tour of Biddle House, which by then will be remodeled with a new museum on Native American history.

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